East Carolina University students went far and wide during spring break, but Tyler Matthews was probably the only one working with a NASCAR race team preparing a truck for his national racing series debut this week.
The ECU junior takes that next step in his racing career Saturday at the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at the famed Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. The race starts at 2 p.m. and airs on FS1.
“We’ve been working for a couple of months to sign the contract deal, and the fact that it’s happening is a dream come true because I’ve always wanted to race in the top levels,” Matthews told the Jacksonville Daily News in January. “A lot of these drivers have been racing for a long time. So for me to do all of this in a short amount of time is awesome.”
Earlier this year, Matthews signed a three-race deal with MDM Motorsports in Mooresville to drive the No. 99 Chevrolet Silverado. In addition to Martinsville, Matthews is scheduled to race June 16 at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa, and June 23 at Gateway Speedway in Madison, Illinois, just outside St. Louis.
Once he completes those races, NASCAR should approve him to compete on larger tracks, which the team could add to its schedule later this year, he said.
Matthews, from Richlands, is a construction management major in the College of Engineering and Technology at ECU. The 21-year-old won the 2016 late model track championship at Southern National Motorsports Park near Kenly and the 2017 late model championship at Carteret County Speedway near Swansboro.
He was the 2015 state NASCAR Whelen All-American Late Model Series Rookie of the Year and the series’ 2016 state champion.
The truck series is the bottom tier of NASCAR’s national touring series. Trucks race on a mix of short and intermediate ovals, superspeedways, two road courses and even a dirt track. Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota are represented in the series.
At 3,400 pounds, the trucks weigh about 300 pounds more than the late model stock cars Matthews is used to, and their 650-horsepower engines have about 250 more horsepower.
Matthews started racing 4-wheelers in enduro-type races through the woods when he was about 7, he said. In high school, he built his first race car for an entry-level division called UCAR and started racing late models – the top division at most local stock-car tracks – about five years ago.
His parents, Steve and Amanda Matthews, crew chief and former local racer Doug Barefoot (“He taught me a ton,” Matthews said.) and some high school friends, some of whom attend ECU, have helped him along the way.
“You have to enjoy what you do, and having your friends there makes it more fun,” he said.
Matthews said when semesters begin and professors ask students to talk about themselves, most of his classmates don’t really understand what he means when he says he’s a race car driver – the level of work and dedication it takes to succeed at just the local level. But when they see photos or come to a race, they get the idea.
Matthews plans to remain enrolled at ECU and then “see what happens for next year if I can make this full time,” he told the Daily News. But he added his parents have always insisted that school come before racing.
“It just gets difficult trying to focus on school and do the best you can in racing,” he said. “I just know I have to get my schoolwork done if I want to race. School comes first, or the racing will come to an end.”
Roger Burns, manager of Carteret County Speedway and father of two sons who race against Matthews, said he’s a “smooth driver” who has a bright future behind the wheel if all goes well.
“He and his dad worked really hard to get where he’s at,” Burns said.
Matthews said his main goal for his first truck series races is to run well, learn and stay out of trouble. Ultimately, he wants to compete full time in the series and then move up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Monster Energy Cup Series.
“That’s definitely my goal to one day run Cup, but that doesn’t always happen,” Matthews told the Daily News. “You have to make the best of what you have. You have to make the best of what opportunities you have.”
And for him, making the most of opportunities means one thing.
“I just want to win,” he said. “I’m so competitive I just want to win everything I do.”
In addition to his truck schedule, Matthews also hopes to compete in some late model races this year. Follow his progress on @TMatthews___ and on Facebook at tyler.matthews.731572.
-by Doug Boyd, University Communications